A 'Modest' Man
William Chapman Ralston, a San Francisco banker, had some involvement with the Central Pacific Railroad. Besides having founded the Bank of California, he was also on the railroad's board of directors. To honor him, the new village located in Stanislaus County was to bear his name. Ralston was printed on railroad maps and seemed to be a good, solid choice. Early newspaper articles in Tuolumne City and Paradise City referenced the location as Ralston. However, Ralston, the man, was said to have declined the honor - apparently because of his modest nature. So, the Spanish term for modest, modesto, seemed an apt substitute. And thus the town was known forevermore.
While Ralston's true reasons may never be known, a legend of sorts has surrounded the naming of Modesto ever since, and here we present two versions. A logical one contributed by Sol P. Elias in "Stories of Stanislaus" published in 1924, and a more fanciful one that appears in "One Hundred Years," the centennial book published in 1870.
It's up to the readers to decide which story sounds more feasible or which they choose to believe or if they both work together.
The First Hand Account and Legend of How Modesto Got Its Name
There are several versions of the story about the naming of Modesto. The one version, contained in the 1970 Centennial Book, "One Hundred Years," probably has the most charm. It is based on Clarence Wooster's "Railroading in California in the Seventies" and recalls the time when he was 12 years old, working with the railroad as it was being built through the San Joaquin Valley:
Clarence Wooster, whose nickname was the Kid, had joined the railroad construction crew at Ripon, where a town had been staked out. The crew waited in the 110 degree heat while a bridge was constructed over the Stanislaus River. The order of work went quickly on the level land. Excavations and fills were made, the rails were laid and spiked down, while the bridge builders went ahead to span creeks and rivers with trestles.
When the crew arrived at the spot which was to be Modesto, more stakes were laid down. The Kid worked in the car drawing in ink a map "Engineer Tom" (no other name given) had sketched out in pencil for the town. . . "for which 'The Kid' had importuned almost every man on the job to give a name." A single passenger car and engine approached. Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and William C. Ralston had come to confer with the engineers and construction boss, Jim Casey.
Noticing the stakes, Hopkins asked what they were there for, and he was told a new town was being laid out. The Kid, anxious to have a name, brought the map to Mr. Hopkins and asked him for an idea. Casey shoved the Kid aside, but Hopkins suggested the name of Ralston. Mr. Ralston smiled, thanked his friend for the compliment, but declined. Then Tony, an overseer on the job, a dapper young man, fond of talking and a favorite of Casey's said, "The senor is much modesto," and Crocker remarked casually, "Modesto, Modesto, that's a good name." The Kid, apparently glad to have the matter settled, printed it on the map.
That's the legend of the naming of Modesto from an eyewitness account. The complete story was contained in records of the Southern Pacific Railroad, but they were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It's probably also true, as quoted in "One Hundred Years," that Ralston, "Certainly left no indication that he ever thought of the matter again. He was too busy making his own city, San Francisco, into the 'queen City of the western world.'" However, another part of the story follows.
A Second, Additional, Pragmatic Part of the Story
From the Tuolumne City News October 28, 1870: "Last week we learned that the railroad company had as a compliment named the proposed new town 'Ralston.' The name looked well and pleased the generality of citizens. It looked well in print and had a pleasant sound. Ralston was the name and suited every one. It was published far and near as such. The plat now comes out marked 'Modesto.' It appears that Ralston had not been consulted and through excessive Modesty declined to submit to the use of his name."
The story is included in Tinkham's history and repeated in Sol P. Elias' history. But Elias elaborates a bit more:
"Though the railroad had endeavored to name the town in honor of W.C. Ralston, one of the most prominent citizens of the state, -- a tower of strength in the banking world and a large purchaser of wheat, the prime staple of the county, after his most modest declination Judge Underhill, the sales agent of the Company, assembled a convention of the citizens for the purpose of selecting a name. Mr. Ralston, also a director of the Company, was present at the meeting. After several names had been suggested, that of Ralston was again proposed. Mr. Ralston, again modestly refused in a speech in which he predicted the future of Modesto that it has since attained [as of 1924]. Judge Stakes arose enthusiastically and said: 'The parent of the infant is 'Modesty' - then the baby's name must be Modesto' -- Spanish for modesty. This name was adopted with acclaim."
It is entirely possible that both stories are true. While the historical items included in Tinkham and Elias are rooted in the actual events as reported in the Tuolumne City News, the tale from "One Hundred Years" was published in Clarence Wooster's memoirs about his years on the railroad. The naming of Modesto occurred when he was "the Kid." Since he lists his age in 1879 as 21, he was 12 years old when Modesto was originally laid out.
The fact that the newspaper account says that the railroad had announced the name as Ralston only to later release the layout of the village with the name of Modesto on it indicates a sudden change of intent. It is not impossible to imagine Ralston standing beside Hopkins and hearing the suggestion that his name be used, declining with all modesty, and a new name being born of sudden inspiration. Both stories make sense and probably should be combined to tell the whole tale.